A Lancashire Tale
(Published in Multi-Storey, April 2003)
In this starry winter night I sit in a striped-blue deckchair in my Hackney garden. Above, on the railway arches, a train stutters over the heavy sleepers. It sounds like the clogs of the Lancashire dead. That sound passes and now there is only the distinct clok-clok of a single pair of clogs. It is the ghost of my Lancashire mother. I hear her climbing over the railway arch and into my garden.
My mother's spirit does not rest because she's a ghost that is haunted. I feel her fingers stroke my hair.
Since her death five years' ago she has visited me many times. For years before she died she would often say, 'Simon, I can never forgive my grandfather.'
But she would never say what it was he had done.
My mother sits next to me on the grass.
Beneath my garden lies one of the buried rivers of London. Tonight I hear it churn. I imagine it is a river running through a cavernous space that is like a coalmine.
Mother picks fretfully at the wet grass.
From the storm-drain on my patio, I feel a presence rising, and I know it is my great-grandfather, Isaiah Piggott.
Something short and powerful seems to stand behind mother and me, as if it has just risen from the Wigan pit.
My great-grandfather stares at my mother, who has become a young woman again.
Now he stares at me.
He says, 'I was Born in Low Green, near Wigan, 1842. Door boy, Wigan Colliery, 1853. I fought for the light. I came from nowhere, you mardy boy!'
He walks over and stands on one side of me. My mother stands up and stares at him over the top of my head.
He goes on, 'In 1850 when I was a right littl'un, Mr Fermor-Hesketh, with a pumping engine he designed himself, drained the water marshes round here. I loved watching him, and seeing the miracle of what a man can do with a machine. He used to give me sweets, but what he really gave me was the power to dream.'
My mother says, 'You only ever thought of yourself! My mother died when I was just thirteen. And my father, Hughie Piggott - your son - was always away somewhere, working for you. And when I was eleven my mother left him because he was cruel to her. You said my mother was a bad influence and made me live with a relative at Carlton House in Burscough Bridge. And my mother lived in a little cottage in Hoscar. You said I wasn't allowed to see her. But I used to run down the lane to leave letters hidden behind a secret tree for my mother.'
My great-grandfather stands up very straight and says to my mother: 'It weren't my fault what happened to your mother - my daughter-in-law - she had smallpox, it happened in them days.'
'She came to you for help,' mother says.
Great-grandfather frowns, 'She weren't family no more.'
'You were nothing but a greedy man!' my mother shouts.
I sense my great-grandfather tap me on the shoulder. He says to me, 'See that. Make a family of gentlefolk and that's how they treat yer!'
I feel his black-coal eyes burn into my neck.
He goes on, 'The Preston to Liverpool railway came through Burscough in 1849.'
My mother spits and says, 'So what! You killed my mother. And when you saw us flying a kite on Parbold Hill, you made her pull it in, and then you took it away.'
Great-grandfather is almost foaming at the mouth, 'I made the future for you. There were gas lights in Burscough in 1858.'
My mother stabs her finger at him, 'One night you were at Carlton House. I was in my attic bedroom, and I heard the old bell ring and ring. You told Becky the maid not to let my mother in. I looked out of the attic window. I saw my mother leave down the lane with her head bowed.'
'She weren't family no more! - the smallpox got her.'
My mother says, 'All I wanted was a simple country life.'
'Simple country life! - coal dust, emphysema, damp houses, smallpox, consumption - don't you see what I did for you? - I saved you from all that.'
'I watched my mother walk down the lane, I never saw her again. I watched her go past the hazel tree, then she turned the corner, I never saw her again....
It was the spring of 1932.
'She got smallpox, you know that, you know that! Look, I worked for you all. I was an engine winder at Jonathan Blundell and Son by the time I was twenty-one. By the age of thirty I'd sunk a 900 yard shaft in India for the Mysore Gold Company. I loved India. It made my fortune.'
'You forced my mother, cold and hungry and ill, to walk back to Hoscar. She was desperate. The greengrocer gave her a lift into Wigan in his van.'
'He never did, it were nothing like that. Sinker Piggott they called me. Sinker Piggott. And I was mayor of Burscough in 1912.'
'My mother went on into the back streets of Wigan...'
'You're dreaming, my girl, you be quiet, you hear. You're just a girl, you never knew. Sinker Piggott they called me - I made you.'
My mother looks into him, 'But I saw the death certificate. Ten years before I died an anonymous person sent me my mother's death certificate.'
'You be quiet, you spoilt bitch - you know nowt.'
Great-grandfather is leaning over me and I feel him spitting at my mother.
My mother continues, 'She died, it said on the death certificate, from the insertion of a blunt instrument into...'
'Smallpox, smallpox, smallpox....'
'You killed my mother - she died from an abortion.'
My great-grandfather sinks onto his knees.
He says, 'I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry - I turned your mother away.'
My great-grandfather stretches his hand towards my mother. 'We are both dead, now, but can we ever be at peace?'
My mother turns to me, 'I can be at peace now.'
She fades into vapour.
My mother has gone to meet her mother. She passes the hazel tree on the road to Hoscar and sees her mother coming round the lane. They embrace.
A little girl in a ponytail is standing with her mother on Parbold Hill. Amongst the spring flowers, they are flying a kite.